June 30, 2021
By Dr Kathy Weston
Recently, I was asked by a rather astute parent about how we can reconcile the desire to cultivate individuality and concomitant self-assuredness in our children, whilst helping them accommodate the natural need to ‘fit in’ socially.
The latter often requires ‘wanting what everyone else has’ or behaving the way others do. For some parents, this can leave them feeling uncomfortable and worrying that they are raising sheep rather than shepherds. The truth is, as social identity theory attests, for a strong sense of self to develop, children need to feel unique and special, and at same time, feel like they belong. They need to be able to express who they are in addition to learning social rules that attract peer acceptance. It is a tightrope.
In the midst of the storm of adolescent discovery (a period of time that spans the ages of 9-24), we are there as consistent, stable and reassuring providers of unconditional love. Having a psychologically secure base gives our children a better chance of successfully navigating the identity crises and challenges that will come. When things feel rough at school, they should be able to rely on calm at home. When things feel tumultuous in their heads, we can provide reassurance and understanding.
Parents, or other loving carers, are the charging station (or at least should be) and a reference point for self-esteem when everything else feels unsettled. It can be stomach-churningly difficult to listen to our children admit friendship difficulties, talk of being disliked, unpopular or of not fitting in. We can rush to problem-solve, when in fact we just need to lend an ear.
Early adolescence is full of daily ups and downs, challenges, tests and opportunities to learn about ourselves. Tests of character help our children learn who they are (are they tempted to join in teasing someone alongside everyone else? Will they stop a friend from doing something stupid? Will they succumb to peer pressure and do something that is clearly wrong?). We can be there to help them unpick particular incidents and talk through choices, impulses and consequences.
Last week, I visited a large boarding school and had the opportunity to address Year 11 and Year 13 students. I knew that I had one chance to inspire them and pass on some words of wisdom.
The talk was about how to thrive academically and emotionally, so they were surprised when I started the talk by emphasising the importance of self-knowledge, self-acceptance and self-belief. They were shocked to hear me talk of self-reliance and positive self-talk. I told them that they should be their own best friend and a strong advocate of their own abilities – cheesy but true.
One student raised his hand and suggested that this was just arrogance in disguise and I had to carefully unpick the difference between pride and self-confidence. It isn’t arrogant to remind yourself how far you have come, or to be proud of what you have overcome. Nor is it egotistical to give yourself a mental pat on the back when you feel like you have done a good job.
One of the biggest threats to children’s resilience is crippling anxiety and self-doubt. Our children need to become self-reliant and able to think about their thinking. Teaching them to listen to what thoughts are entering their head and to reflect on these meaningfully, before they affect emotions and actions, is a good thing.
The teen years are fraught with tough interpersonal decisions that can have far reaching consequences. The teen brain has an appetite for risk and impulsivity as well as self-doubt. The more we can support our children’s journey towards self-knowledge and discovery, the better. The less we overreact to their changing appetites, interests or opinions, the better. Maintaining a strong, unchanging family culture of acceptance can help them navigate their own internal battles so much more easily.
Alongside this, our children are learning who they are via the feedback that they receive from others and us. Keep your reactions positive and try not to say anything that you might later regret. Give them access to opportunities where they are likely to receive feedback on who they are from other adults too. Can they help a neighbour? Or do some work experience with one of your friends?
There is a saying in Ireland that ‘people become more like themselves’ as they get older and that’s a good thing! We need our children to be proud of who they are, their interests, backgrounds, family and cultural histories. As parents, we should attune to who they are and be ready to accept the individual who emerges.
However, this strong sense of individuality is also dependent on social belonging and we need to be sensitive to that innate need. A child’s expressed desire for homogeneity doesn’t mean they are drifting away from individuality, but rather that they are intelligent enough to know that occasionally, ‘fitting in’ really matters! This might mean having their hair a particular way, downloading and playing certain games or acquiring a particular product. Such badges of belonging can help ease acceptance and provide a first rung of participation in the latest peer to peer conversation.
Naturally, some of these badges will not necessarily meet our approval. They might request something age-inappropriate or even distasteful. In such circumstances, careful parental discussion should ensue, driven by empathy, sprinkled with common sense and providing balance. We should aim to model ‘weighing up’ decisions and taking time to think through the motivation behind wanting something and whether its acquisition will benefit us sufficiently to warrant going against the grain of our own values. What matters most is how we reach the decision together and what we can teach our children in the process.
Developing a mutual understanding that it’s tough to be a teen will help you navigate such delicate discussions and hopefully allow your child to see you as a helpful sounding board, rather than a broken record.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
The Tooled Up library has a whole host of resources which can help young people to cultivate a strong sense of self-identity, social belonging and family values. Encourage your children to complete our What Makes You, You? and My Family Tree activities to encourage a strong sense of self. Help to arm tweens with social scripts to encourage good peer relationships with our Making Friends resource, learn how to build their social confidence, or listen to our podcast interview with Professor Robin Banerjee for an interesting discussion about the importance of belonging. We also have resources to help children recognise their own emotions, consider family values and build self-esteem.